Sour Cherry Streusel Tart
Fresh sour pie cherries are as precious as rubies. Bright and shiny like the gems they resemble, the sour Montmorency cherries have a short season (only 2 to 3 weeks in July) in western Montana, so I always pick some off a neighbor’s tree to use fresh and enough to freeze. A true luxury is popping a just-picked fresh cherry warmed by the sun into my mouth, pulling away the stem, and eating the flesh off its pit. I shiver from the tartness, but I know summer is truly here.This recipe is one of the best ways I know to celebrate the pie cherry. Please note that the filling mixture needs to sit at room temperature about 5 hours, so prepare it first. You could even start it the night before and leave it in the refrigerator. And be careful when eating this mouthwatering treat: even though the cherries are pitted, I always warn people to beware of renegade pits. One or two often manage to escape the pitter. The best way to pit cherries quickly is to use a pitter with a hopper that you can attach to a table top. Another, slower, way is to pit them individually. You can find a large selection of pitters at amazon.com.
If you don’t have access to a pie cherry tree, or they’re not available during their brief season at a local farmers’ market, you can make this tart with canned pie cherries. Buy enough to give you 4 cups drained cherries, and save the juices. Measure the juice you’ll need, stir in the sugar, and make the cornstarch sauce.
What you’ll learn:
How to make a cornstarch-based sauce so that it thickens properly.
How to make a flaky and crisp tart shell.
How to make a brown sugar and butter crumb topping (streusel).
2 pounds fresh sour pie cherries, stemmed and pitted (4 cups)
1 cup sugar (plus more if cherries are very sour)
1 1/4 cups cherry juices
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon (about 2 teaspoons)
1 ¼ cups (6 ¼) ounces unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup (1 ½ ounces) cake flour
1⁄4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1⁄2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces
3 tablespoons chilled vegetable shortening (I use Earth Balance refrigerated sticks)
1⁄3 cup ice water
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
½ cup (2 ½ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup firmly packed light brown sugar (3 1/2 ounces)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground mace
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces
To measure the flours for the filling and topping, scoop a dry measuring cup into the flour containers, fill the cup to overflowing, and sweep off the excess with a metal spatula. Repeat as needed.
To make the filling, combine the fresh pitted cherries with the sugar in a large bowl and let the mixture stand for about 5 hours at room temperature, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved and the cherry juices are released. Drain well in a wire strainer set over a bowl. Transfer the juice to a 2-cup glass measure and add enough water (if necessary) to reach 1 1⁄4 cups. In a heavy-bottomed 2-quart saucepan, whisk together the liquid, cornstarch, and salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring gently but continuously with a rubber spatula, and cook 2 to 3 minutes, or until the mixture is thick and translucent. As the liquid heats, you’ll see that it forms small red clots.
The temptation is to stir or whisk rapidly to make the mixture smooth. Don’t! Just keep stirring gently as more and more clots form and before you know it, they’ll all join together to make a sauce that is thick and smooth. Rapid and vigorous stirring of cornstarch sauces may make them thin out instead of thickening, so be gentle. Stir in the lemon zest and drained cherries.
To make the pastry in a food processor, place both flours, the salt, sugar, butter, and shortening in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Pulse rapidly 4 times to begin breaking up the fat. Combine the ice water and cider vinegar in a cup with a pouring spout. While pulsing very rapidly, gradually pour the ice water through the feed tube. Pulse 20 to 30 more times, or until the dough almost gathers into a ball. Carefully remove the dough from the work bowl, lightly dust it with flour, and shape it into a 6-inch disc. Wrap securely in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least l hour.
To make the pastry by hand, place both flours, the salt, sugar, butter, and shortening in a large mixing bowl. Cut in the fats with a pastry blender until the particles resemble small peas. While tossing with a fork, gradually sprinkle in the ice water combined with the cider vinegar until the dough gathers into a ball. Continue as directed above.
Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface into a 13- to 14-inch circle. You’ll notice flecks of butter that will make the baked pastry flaky.
If the pastry is very firm, tap it with the rolling pin a few times to soften. Loosely fit it into an 11-inch tart pan 1 inch deep with a removable bottom and a fluted edge. Tuck the edges of the pastry into the tart pan to avoid stretching the dough. Trim the overhanging pastry to within ½ inch of the tart pan rim, then fold the overhang dough inward against the sides of the pastry in the pan, pressing firmly to join the two. Then press the edges of the dough together so that about ¼-inch of pastry extends above the tart rim. This is important because the tart will be very full.
Meanwhile, adjust an oven rack to the center position, place a heavy baking sheet on the rack, and preheat the oven to 400°F. Remove the pastry from the freezer and line it with a square of aluminum foil, pressing the foil into the corners and allowing the excess to extend upright above the rim. Fill the tart pan with dried beans or rice to hold the pastry in place as it bakes. I’ve been reusing these beans for over 30 years!
Place the pan on the baking sheet, and bake for about 20 minutes, or until edge of pastry is lightly colored. Remove the pan from the oven, carefully remove the foil and beans or rice, prick the bottom of the shell all over with a fork, and return the tart shell to the oven for 10 more minutes to dry out. Watch carefully to see if the pastry puffs. If it does, prick it in a few more places with a fork. Remove the pan from the oven and set aside to cool. (The crust may be made hours ahead.)
To make the streusel topping in a food processor, place the flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg and butter in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Pulse several times, or until the mixture is crumbly.
To make the topping by hand, combine the flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, mace, and nutmeg in a medium-sized bowl, breaking up any lumps in the brown sugar with your fingertips. Add the butter and cut it in with a pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
If the oven isn’t on, preheat it to 400°F with a rack adjusted to the center position and a heavy baking sheet set on the rack. Scrape the cherry filling into the cooled partially baked crust and spread it level.
Sprinkle the topping evenly over the filling, patting it very gently in place without packing it down. It’s easiest to start at the edges, and then fill in the center. The tart shell should be full. Place the tart pan on the baking sheet and place in the oven. Bake about 30 minutes, or until the filling is bubbly and the topping and edge of pastry are nicely browned. Remove from the oven and place on a rack to cool.
Note: To prepare pie cherries for freezing, combine 4 cups pitted cherries with 1 cup sugar and 4 level teaspoons of Fruit Fresh, stirring to mix well. Transfer to airtight freezer containers, seal, date, and freeze. The cherries will keep well for up to 1 year, but you’ll probably want them during the winter to revive summer memories. To use, thaw thoroughly in a wire strainer set over a bowl to collect all the juices. Measure the juice and add enough water to reach 1 ¼ cups. Taste a cherry and add more sugar if the cherries were very sour. Proceed as the recipe directs.